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Huawei 5G kit must be removed from UK by 2027

16 July 2020

Following sanctions issued by the US, the UK government has banned Huawei from its 5G network and ordered companies to strip Huawei equipment out of the system by 2027.

The requirement to remove all Huawei 5G kits by 2027 will cost around £2bn and delay the rollout of 5G by 2-3 years. Buying new Huawei 5G kits is banned after 31 December 2020. The existing ban on Huawei from most sensitive ‘core’ parts of 5G network remains. 

Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden said in a statement to the House of Commons: “By the time of the next election, we will have implemented in law an irreversible path for the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G networks.”

The decision was taken in a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC), chaired by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in response to new US sanctions. These were imposed on Huawei by the US in May, after the UK’s initial decision on high risk vendors, and are the first of their kind removing the firm’s access to products which have been built based on US semiconductor technology. Washington imposed the sanctions amid its escalating US-China trade war, claiming the firm poses a national security threat – something Huawei denies.

Technical experts at the NCSC reviewed the consequences of the sanctions and concluded the company will need to do a major reconfiguration of its supply chain, since it will no longer have access to technology on which it currently relies, and there are no alternatives which the UK has sufficient confidence in. They found the new restrictions make it impossible to continue to guarantee the security of Huawei equipment in the future.

As a result, ministers agreed that UK operators should stop the purchase of Huawei equipment affected by the sanctions. There will be a ban on the purchase of new Huawei kits for 5G from next year, and it must be completely removed from 5G networks by the end of 2027. The government said the decision considers specific national circumstances and how the risks from these sanctions are manifested in the UK. The existing restrictions on Huawei in sensitive and critical parts of the network remain in place.

The US action also affects Huawei products used in the UK’s full fibre broadband networks. However, the UK has managed Huawei’s presence in the UK’s fixed access networks since 2005, and says it also needs to avoid a situation where broadband operators are reliant on a single supplier for their equipment. As a result, the government says following expert security advice, it is advising full fibre operators to transition away from purchasing new Huawei equipment. A technical consultation will determine the transition timetable, but this period is expected to last no longer than two years. The government insisted this approach strikes the right balance by recognising full fibre’s established presence, and supporting the connections that the public relies on, while fully addressing security concerns.

Commenting on the news, Head of Cyber at Mishcon de Reya, Joe Hancock, says: "The Government has been sensible in giving the telecommunications sector until 2027 to remove Huawei equipment. Huawei equipment is widespread throughout UK telecoms networks and it will take considerable effort to remove. This allows service providers to replace Huawei piece by piece and removes the need for an immediate change. A different US administration could lead to this change being reversed. 

“The sanctions placed on Huawei will impact how products are designed and where their internal components come from, in turn potentially leading to security and reliability issues as these changes are made. Any widespread technology design changes are likely to create security vulnerabilities, even if well tested. If this ban were not in place the UK would need to assure itself that these changes do not undermine national security, which is both an expensive and time-consuming exercise." 

Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden, head of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) said: "5G will be transformative for our country, but only if we have confidence in the security and resilience of the infrastructure it is built upon.”

The government will now seek to legislate at the earliest opportunity with a new Telecoms Security Bill to put in place the powers necessary to implement this tough new telecoms security framework. It will give the government the national security powers to impose these new controls on high risk vendors and create extensive security duties on network operators to drive up standards.

Since the US sanctions only affect future equipment, the government has been advised there is no security justification for removing existing 2G, 3G and 4G equipment supplied by Huawei. However, when swapping out the company's 5G masts, networks may well also consider switching to different vendors to provide these earlier-generation services at the same time. 

Huawei insisted the move was "bad news for anyone in the UK with a mobile phone" and that it threatened to "move Britain into the digital slow lane, push up bills and deepen the digital divide". The action, however, does not currently affect Huawei's ability to sell its smartphones or how they will run. Meanwhile, the move looks like it should benefit Nokia and Ericsson, which are the two other main 5G equipment vendors. 

With 1,500 employees in the UK, Huawei says that in 2018, its total gross value-added contribution to UK GDP was £1.7 billion (including £287M in direct Huawei investment and procurement, and a further £806M along its supply chain, plus £598 stimulated in the consumer economy) – and that it supports around 26,200 jobs in the UK. As well as generating £470M tax revenue in 2018, the company has previously committed £3Bn of spend to the UK economy over 5 years to help UK carrier partners roll out fixed and mobile networks, and provide network architecture, sites and stations.

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